As a dedicated omnivore, I returned from a recent holiday in Spain stuffed with salty jamón and sheep’s cheese, sweet peaches and rabbit paella – and in need of spice. I’m only slightly ashamed to admit that the first thing we did on stepping on to the Gatwick Express was order a takeaway. Nothing says welcome home like lamb curry and dal.
Such dishes have become as comfortingly familiar as syrup sponge or sausage and mash, and in reality I eat more rogan josh than I do roast beef. The British taste for Indian food is often cited as evidence of our inherent liberalism – and I stand by my claim that I once saw spaghetti in the “foreign foods” section of a French supermarket – but the reality might be more indicative of persistent colonial attitudes.
From the get-go, we were busy bastardising the cuisine of our newest conquest, sweetening it with fruit – apples and sultanas were popular in Victorian curries – thickening it with flour and loading it with too much raw spice. (Indian cooks were puzzled by their masters’ obsession with heat. Plus ça change.)
Little wonder, then, that one 19th-century British bride, fresh off the boat in Bombay, wasn’t happy, lamenting that, “as to the curries it makes me sick to think of them: give me an English one!” Visiting India for the first time, I remember being similarly disappointed by the lack of old favourites on the menu. I was, in my defence, very young.
At the time, my order of choice would probably have been (the shame!) a lychee-studded chicken kashmiri, or perhaps a pina colada-like coconut and pineapple number whose name mercifully escapes me. You don’t see so many fruit curries around these days, something brought home to me last week, when I ate at Trishna in Marylebone, the sister restaurant of a Mumbai institution. It specialises in the “coastal cuisine” of the south-west but alongside the Koliwada shrimp and hariyali bream, the London branch is serving a game tasting menu. Tandoori grouse, bhuna venison – even the keema nan was filled with mallard. This, they inform me, is because they update their offering “every season, to reflect the availability of the produce”. This is not a place where you ask for “the hottest one you’ve got”.
Trishna is a far cry from the early days of Indian restaurants in Britain. The first opened in London in 1810 (there’s a plaque commemorating the Hindoostane Coffee House at 34 George Street, W1), and the legendary Veeraswamy in 1926, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that things took off. Many of the early premises were former cafés and fish and chip shops, and the new owners, keen to retain the existing customer base, added a few curries to the menu. Because few were professional chefs, these tended to be simple affairs, often all based on the same bought-in sauce, to which more or less curry powder could be added according to whether a korma, madras or vindaloo had been ordered.
On the sauce
Trends, such as the tandoor oven (introduced by Veeraswamy in 1959), regional cuisine and the balti craze of the 1980s, have come and gone but the biggest change has been the move upmarket. The Bombay Brasserie opened in Kensington in 1982 and, according to the restaurant critic Fay Maschler, “at a stroke altered the preconceptions of a cuisine that had long been immured in yards of flock wallpaper and all-purpose sauces”. When Iqbal Wahhab opened his Cinnamon Club in London in 2001, he vowed it would be a poppadom-free zone.
The UK now boasts five Michelin-starred Indian restaurants (some of them even serve poppadoms). Of my lychee curry, however, there is sadly no sign.